Monday, March 14, 2011

6 Fillers to Avoid in Dialogue

The oft-quoted recommendation to make your dialogue as realistic as possible is sometimes the worst advice imaginable. The next time you’re in a conversation—or, even better, eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation—draw back a bit and evaluate what you’re hearing. Those “ums,” “you knows,” and “so, likes…” that pepper our everyday speech may be realistic, but they don’t generally make for good dialogue on the page. Following are a list of unnecessary “fillers” to avoid in your fictional dialogue:

1. Tics and Time Buyers: “Like,” “you know, “um,” “uh,” “well,” “look,” “er,” “ah,” and their ilk rarely add anything to the conversation. They’re little plugs our brains insert into the flow of our speech to give us time to piece together the right words to finish our thoughts. Only use these words when they indicate something about the character—and, even then, use them with extreme caution.

2. Reiterations: Whenever “huh?,” “what?,” “I didn’t hear you,” “I don’t understand,” or “could you repeat that?” crop up in your dialogue and force a character to reiterate something he just said, it’s a sure indicator of one of two things: 1) Either the original line of dialogue was incomprehensible and needs to be rewritten or 2) the confused character’s question and the subsequent explanation are unnecessary and should be deleted.

3. Repetitions: Don’t let your characters get away with echoing each other: “I burnt the dinner.” “You burnt the dinner. How’d that happen?” “I don’t know how it happened. It just did.” Keep each line of dialogue fresh and punchy with new material: “I burnt the dinner.” “How’d that happen?” “It just did.”

4. Info Dumps: In real life, if we went around saying things like, “As you know, Bob, our sister got married last Tuesday and we both missed her wedding because we discussed it amongst ourselves and decided together that we wanted to spite her,” you’d get strange looks and lose friends. Unless there’s a good reason for including such information in dialogue, spare your characters and your readers and place the necessary info into the narrative instead.

5. Small Talk: Introductions, greetings, farewells, chitchat about the weather—nine times out of ten all that good stuff is completely unnecessary to the plot and adds little or nothing to character development. Ax it relentlessly.

6. Direct Address: Characters calling each other by name is one of the subtler forms of “filling,” but, ironically, it’s also one of the most unrealistic attempts to create authentic dialogue. In real life, we generally call someone by name only when trying to get his attention, when emphasizing a point, when in the throes of strong emotion, or to avoid confusion.

Dialogue is one of the most fun bits of fiction to write, in large part because the gloves are off and “the rules” rarely apply. In fact, none of these “rules” I’ve listed here will apply in every circumstance. Sometimes you’ll make the educated choice to use one or all of these fillers to advance your plot or illustrate something about a character. Just make certain you understand why and when to use them. Now, sit back and let ‘em talk!

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